There are many different traditions that families use to celebrate the holiday season, from baking special cookies to wearing seasonal sweaters. One tradition that stands out in downtown Raleigh every December is the Raleigh Ringers’ Holiday Concert Series. This 19-member advanced community handbell choir has been ringing since 1990, touring across the country, participating in and hosting handbell choir festivals, and helping to promote handbell ringing nationwide; however, it is always nice for them to come home to Raleigh and play for their families, community, Ringer fans, and holiday concert-goers.
Led by director David M. Harris, the choir presented three concerts at Meymandi Concert Hall, all of which were being filmed by UNC-TV for a future holiday TV special to appear in December 2013. Footage will also go toward the creation of future DVD projects for the Ringers, following the choir’s first DVD release in 2003. Large baskets of cough drops were provided in the lobby for the audience in hopes to eliminate coughing in the recordings.
The concert began with a Hart Morris arrangement of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter,” complete with fog machine and lightshow to emphasize the rock-and-roll style. The audience was held spellbound through the first half of the program, featuring mainly classic Christmas songs presented in lovely arrangements. Works representing commissioned arrangements for the Raleigh Ringers included Hart Morris’ “Boughs of Holly,” Karen Buckwalter’s Valse Brilliante, Sandra Eithun’s “Coventry Carol,” and "Little Fugue," Michael Kastner’s arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in G minor. These were all very impressive, showcasing the talent of the ensemble and the versatility of the different types of bells the Ringers use. Fred Gramann’s arrangement of “Pat-a-pan” and Ardis Freeman’s arrangement of Victor Herbert’s "March of the Toys" were two other favorites that presented familiar melodies with unique arrangements that could only be captured by the bright tones of tinkling bells.
The favorite piece in the first half, however, was another custom arrangement: Hart Morris’ arrangement of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The music wasn’t even the best part; after the first verse, Mr. Grinch himself made an appearance, skulking out on stage behind the ringers, stealing bells, and even kidnapping a ringer and taking his place for the last chorus! This programmatic addition to the concert drew in the audience and showed the lighter side of the ensemble.
The second half began with Georges Bizet’s “Farandole” from L’arlesienne Suite No. 2, transcribed by William H. Griffin. This movement started with a set of high bells being struck by a mallet mechanism that worked automatically while the ringers played. The resulting effect was a high ostinato that was interesting but a little distracting from the melody. One of the issues with bells in general is that when struck, they produce a certain note that rings, but also spread into overtones that conflict with the clarity of sound. This was especially apparent in pieces like the "Little Fugue" when orchestral chimes were used in addition to the various bells. Sometimes the overtones created a kind of aural chaos, which was part of the effect of the song, but sometimes took away from the harmony.
In addition to featuring more entertaining Raleigh Ringer classics, such as Hart Morris’ arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas and Martha Lynn Thompson’s arrangement of the Rimsky-Korsakoff classic "The Flight of the Bumblebee" – complete with buzzing bees, beekeepers, and flyswatters! – this concert featured more serious, moving songs. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” arranged by Arnold B. Sherman and “The First Noel,” arranged by Kathy Moklebust, were delightful. They showcased the chime bars and different types of bells, including a newly-donated set of hanging bells from Malmark Bellcraftsmen, who the Ringers generally support by buying anything new this company produces!
The final work of the program was another Hart Morris-arranged Trans-Siberian Orchestra piece, "Good King Joy," which then transitioned into Betty Garee’s arrangement of “Stille Nacht,” (or Silent Night), by Franz Gruber. The audience was encouraged during the second verse to illuminate the battery-powered candles distributed prior to the concert. By the time the lights dimmed at the end, the whole hall was peaceful, illuminated in silence by the candles and a Star of Bethlehem above the stage. The true wonder of the holiday season was encapsulated in this one moment, during which the whole audience took pause before breaking into applause.
However, it wouldn’t be a Raleigh Ringers concert without some gags! Before “Good King Joy” and “Stille Nacht” began, Harris instructed the audience to remember to return the candles to the baskets in the lobby after the concert – or there would be consequences, like being searched by an airport TSA representative! An officer emerged onto the stage and confiscated about three candles from Harris’ pockets, sleeves, and even his shoe to prove this point. The Ringers also presented their new rock song arrangement as an encore piece: Bon Jovi’s “Living on A Prayer,” arranged by Keith Burt, ringer of the bass bells. The fog machine revisited the stage, as did strobe lights, fake “flames” above the backdrop, and the Raleigh Ringers, decked out in rock t-shirts, wigs, and tie-dyed gloves. The audience was encouraged to sing the chorus, eventually starting to sound like they were at a real rock concert. The final encore piece was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” arranged by Paul McKlveen. Most of the audience sang along with this song, too, and the candles were used as waving “lighters” during the slower parts.
Overall, this was a delightful concert that featured a “rowdy Saturday night crowd” for an audience, as Harris observed. The music was sometimes spiritual and reflective, sometimes loud and boisterous, and sometimes unconventional and entertaining; but it was always enjoyable and performed with great talent and showmanship. The Raleigh Ringers will continue touring in the spring, with their next Meymandi Hall concert on June 9, 2013.